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Absent but Accounted for: A New Approach to the Copper Scroll

  • Steven Weitzman (a1)

Like so much of early Jewish literature, the strange Dead Sea scroll known as the Copper Scroll (3Q15) remains suspended somewhere between reality and fantasy. Even before scholars had fully unrolled its copper plates in 1956, they were able to discern that it recorded a list of treasures, but there soon broke out a dispute over whether this treasure was real or not. Some scholars felt that the treasure was too large to be real and that it was a figment of its author's imagination. They sought the origins of the scroll in ancient Jewish legend. Others believed the treasure to be quite plausible, probably connected to the Temple in some way. The scroll itself, however, revealed nothing that might settle the issue in one direction or the other. In what follows, I wish to explore a way beyond this impasse, not resolving whether the treasure was real or not, but suggesting how it could be both at the same time. Such a claim will seem contradictory, but it is my hope over the course of this essay not just to establish the possibility of such a position but to demonstrate that such a reading is actually more consistent with the evidence we have than any reading that imposes an either/or choice between reading the treasure as fictional or genuine.

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1 Veyne Paul, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination (trans. Wissig Paula; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) 102–33. I would like to thank Mira Balberg, Hindy Najman, and Mira Wasserman for their feedback in response to earlier versions of this essay, and James Redfield for careful and discerning editorial assistance.

2 Milik J. T., “Le rouleau de cuivre de Qumrân (3Q15). Traduction et commentaire topographique,” RB 66 (1959) 321–57.

3 Milik J. T., “Notes d’épigraphie et de topographie palestiniennes,” RB 66 (1959) 550–75.

4 Recent scholarship suggests that the identity and locations of the vessels listed in Masseket Kelim were derived through creative inferences from biblical sources. See Davila James, “Scriptural Exegesis in the Treatise of the Vessels, a Legendary Account of the Hiding of the Temple Treasures,” in With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism in Honor of Rachel Elior (ed. Arbel Daphna and Orlov Andrei; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011) 4561.

5 Mowinckel Sigmund, “The Copper Scroll—An Apocryphon?JBL 76 (1957) 261–65; Cross Frank Moore Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958) 2125.

6 Karl Georg Kuhn, “Les rouleaux de cuivre de Qumran,” RB 61 (1954) 193–205; Allegro John, The Treasure of the Copper Scroll (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969).

7 For the coin hoard discovered at Qumran, see Marcia Sharabani, “Monnaies de Qumran au Musée Rockefeller de Jérusalem,” RB 87 (1980) 274–84.

8 For his account of his effort to find the Copper Scroll treasure, see Allegro John, Search in the Desert (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964).

9 Brooke George, “Introduction,” in Copper Scroll Studies (ed. Brooke George and Davies Philip; Sheffield: Sheffield, 2002) 19, at 8.

10 The hypotheses are too numerous to list individually, but we can follow Al Wolters (“The Copper Scroll,” The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years [ed. Peter Flint and James VanderKam; 2 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1998] 302–23, at 309–10) in grouping them into four categories: 1) The treasure belonged to the Qumran community and was concealed by it before 70 C.E. (See Pixner Bargil, “Unraveling the Copper Scroll Code: A Study of the Topography of 3Q15,” RevQ 11 [1983] 323–58; Goranson Stephen, “Sectarianism, Geography and the Copper Scroll,” JJS 43 [1992] 282–87); 2) The treasure belonged to the Temple itself and was concealed by the Zealots or priests sometime before its destruction (In addition to Allegro, see Norman Golb, “The Problem of Origins and Identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society [1980] 1–24); 3) The treasure records undelivered Temple contributions concealed in the period during or after the Temple's destruction (See Lehmann Manfred, “Identification of the Copper Scroll Based on Its Technical Terms,” RevQ 5 [1964] 97105); 4) The treasure belonged to the Bar Kokhba rebels, possibly meant for use in a restored Temple (Laperrousaz Ernest-Marie, “Remarques sur l’origine des rouleaux de cuivre découverts dans la grotte 3 de Qumran,” RHR 159 [1961] 157–72; Ben-Zion Lurie, Megillat ha-nehoshet mi-midbar Yehudah [Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1963]).

11 See, for example, Lefkovits Judah, The Copper Scroll 3Q15: A Reevaluation. A New Reading, Translation, and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2000) 488, who concludes that the treasure probably only consisted of 60 tons of metal (in contrast to the 200 tons estimated by previous scholars), of which only seventeen percent was gold.

12 See Wolters, “The Copper Scroll,” 311.

13 For a parallel from elsewhere in the Roman world, Cassius Dio reports that in order to protect a massive treasure of gold and silver from the emperor Trajan, the king of the Dacians concealed it in a cavity he had dug out beneath the river Saergetia. Although surviving descriptions of this treasure seem exaggerated, historians believe that the treasure was real, and indeed, a sizeable portion of it may have been found in the 16th century. See Makkay John, “The Treasures of Decebelus,” OJA 14 (1995) 333–45.

14 This phenomenon of mistaking legendary for real treasure is by no means limited to antiquity. In 2012, two thieves were arrested for breaking into and destroying a 2000 year old well located under a structure from the Crusader period adjacent to the modern-day Israeli city Beth Shemesh. The culprits claimed they were looking for a treasure hidden by one of their forebears, basing themselves on a local legend. See Omri Efraim, “Gold Diggers Ravage Archeological Site,” ynet news, accessed September 9, 2013,,7340,L-4173467,00.html.

15 Sahlins Marshall, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981); Mali Joseph, Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Bietenholz Peter, Historia and Fabula: Myths and Legends in Historical Thought from Antiquity to the Modern Age (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

16 Weitzman Steve, “Myth, History and Mystery in the Copper Scroll,” in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation (ed. Newman Judith, Najman Hindy, and Kutsko John; Leiden: Brill, 2003) 239–55.

17 See, for example, Doran Robert, Temple Propaganda: The Purpose and Character of 2 Maccabees (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981) 103–4.

18 This title was proposed by Richards G. C. in “Timachidas,” New Chapters in the History of Greek Literature, Second Series (ed. Powell J. U. and Barber E. A.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929) 7683, at 76.

19 Wilmot's research was never published, and I could not get access to his unpublished draft, but his argument has been summarized by his student Michael Wise, and through him, we can get some sense of his conclusions. See Michael O. Wise, “David J. Wilmot and the Copper Scroll,” Copper Scroll Studies, 291–309.

20 Important studies of this material that I have consulted include Tréheux Jacques, Études sur les inventaires attiques (Paris: Études d’archéologie classique, 1965); Linders Tullia, The Treasures of the Other Gods in Athens and their Functions (Meisenheim am Glan: Hain, 1975); Aleshire Sara, The Athenian Asklepieion: The People, Their Dedications, and the Inventories (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1989); Harris Diane, The Treasures of the Parthenon and Erechtheion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995); Hamilton Richard, Treasure Map: A Guide to the Delian Inscriptions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).

21 Wise, “David J. Wilmot and the Copper Scroll,” 302–3.

22 For a brief survey of previous attempts to explain the letters, see Levkovits, Copper Scroll 3Q15, 499–501.

23 Tod Marcus, “Letter-Labels in Greek Inscriptions,” ABSA 49 (1954) 18.

24 Wolters Al, “The Last Treasure of the Copper Scroll,” JBL 107 (1988) 419–29, at 426, whose interpretation is disputed by Mandel Paul, “On the Duplicate Copy of the Copper Scroll (3Q15),” RevQ 61 (1993) 6976. On other Greek loanwords that appear in the scroll, see Martínez García, “Greek Loanwords in the Copper Scroll,” Qumranica Minora II (ed. Tigchelaar Eibert; Leiden: Brill, 2007) 145–70.

25 Harris, Treasures of the Parthenon, 22. For more on Athens's archival system as it developed in the 5th cent. B.C.E., see Boegehold Alan, “The Establishment of a Central Archive in Athens,” AJA 76 (1972) 2330.

26 The translation is from Aleshire, Athenian Asklepieion, 278–79. For the Greek text, see 251.

27 Lefkovits, Copper Scroll 3Q15, 454.

28 de Vaux Roland, “Exploration de la région de Qumran,” RB 60 (1953) 540–61, at 557–58.

29 See Casson Stanley, “Early Greek Inscriptions on Metal: Some Notes,” AJQ 39 (1935) 510–17; Williamson Callie, “Monuments of Bronze: Roman Legal Documents on Bronze Tablets,” CA 6 (1987) 160–83.

30 The version of Masseket Kelim inscribed on marble plaques was copied in part by Jean Starcky and published by Milik in “Notes d’ épigraphie,” 567–75.

31 As it happens, the only other reference in the Dead Sea Scrolls to what seems to be a bronze or copper text, a “bron[ze] tablet,” mentioned in a poorly preserved portion of the Temple Scroll (column 34, line 1), seems to place it in a public space, the Temple itself. The mention of this tablet occurs in close proximity to a description of buildings where cultic vessels were stored: “houses for the utensils of the altar, [that is,] the basins and the flagons and the fire pans and the silver bowls with which one brings up the entrails and the legs of the altar” (column 33, lines 13–15). Might the tablet have been connected to these buildings and their content? There is no way to know because this stretch of the Temple Scroll is very fragmentary. Yadin compares it to 1 Kings 7:36 where the word translated here as “tablet” means something like panel. See Yadin Yigael, The Temple Scroll, Volume 2: Text and Commentary (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, The Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Shrine of the Book, 1983) 144. Still, the fact that a reference to a bronze tablet appears in close proximity to a passage listing cultic objects is interesting given our argument.

32 Hamilton, Treasure Map, 347–48.

33 Linders Tullia, “The Purpose of Inventories: A Close Reading of the Delian Inventories of the Independence,” in Comptes et inventaires dans la cité grecque. Actes du colloque de Neuchâtel en l’honneur de Jacques Tréheux (ed. Knoepfler Denis and Quellet Nicole; Neuchâtel: Faculté des Lettres Neuchâtel, 1988) 3747.

34 See also Thomas Rosalind, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 8687.

35 Harris Diane, “Freedom of Information and Accountability: The Inventory List of the Parthenon,” in Ritual, Finance, Politics: Athenian Democratic Accounts Presented to David Lewis (ed. Osborne Robin and Hornblower Simon; Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) 213–25.

36 Harris's contrast with ancient Near Eastern practice may be overdrawn. In ancient Egypt, for example, temple inventories were not only inscribed on texts; they were also depicted visually on temple walls. See Haring Ben, “Inventories and Administration in the Egyptian New Kingdom,” in Archives and Inventories in the Eastern Mediterranean (ed. Vandorpe Katelijn and Clarysse Willy; Brussels: Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten, 2007) 4757, at 53–54.

37 See Aleshire, Athenian Asklepieion, 103–10.

38 Dignas Beate, “‘Inventories’ or ‘Offering Lists’? Assessing the Wealth of Apollo Didymaeus,” ZPE 138 (2002) 235–44.

39 Dousa Thomas, Gaudard Francois, and Johnson Janet, “P. Berlin 6848, A Roman Period Temple Inventory,” in Res Severa Verum Gaudium. Festschrift für Karl-Theodor Zauzich zum 65. Geburtstag am 8. Juni 2004 (ed. Hoffmann Friedhelm and Thissen Heinz J.; Studia Demotica 6; Leuven: Peeters, 2004) 139222, esp.185–86 for discussion of the bronze inventory.

40 Higbie Carolyn, The Lindian Chronicle and the Greek Creation of their Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Josephine Shaya, “The Lindos Chronicle and the Lost Treasures of Athena: Catalogs, Collections, and Local History” (Ph.D diss., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2002); idem, “The Greek Temple as Museum: the Legendary Treasure of Athena from Lindos,” AJA 109 (2005) 423–42.

41 Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 128–37.

42 Chaniotis Angelos, Historie und Historiker in den griechischen Inschriften (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1988) 54.

43 Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 131–37.

44 The translation is from Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 69. For the Greek text of the inscription, see Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 250–58; Higbie, Lindian Chronicle, 19–49.

45 Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 125–27. Earlier scholarship suspected that a few of the treasures still existed at the time of the inscription's composition, but, as Shaya notes, even if some of the objects still existed in the authors’ day, these were the exception.

46 Blinkenberg Christian, La Chronique du temple lindien (Copenhagen: B. Luno, 1912) 49.

47 Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 26–28.

48 For these and other examples, see Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 214–19.

49 The translation here is cited from Hamilton, Treasure Map, 347–48.

50 Text cited from Aleshire, Athenian Asklepion, 129 (Greek, lines 1–7), with the English translation on 135–36; brackets added by author.

51 Cited from Linders Tullia, “Inscriptions and Orality,” SO 67 (1992) 2740, at 37–38.

52 See Shaya, “Greek Temple as Museum,” 435–36.

53 Worth noting in this connection is a recent argument that other medieval Byzantine catalogues of fabulous treasure from the 11th and 12th centuries draw on much earlier sources from Late Antiquity. See Mango Cyril, Vickers Michael, and Francis E.D., “The Palace of Lausus at Constantinople and its Collection of Ancient Statues,” Journal of the History of Collecting 4 (1992) 8998; Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 239–45.

54 For evidence of priestly theft from the Temple, see 2 Maccabees 4:32; Jewish War 6.387–191. For the pilfering of sacred donations intended for the Temple, see Antiquities 18.82–83.

55 Knohl Israel, “Post-Biblical Sectarianism and Priestly Schools of the Pentateuch: the Issue of Popular Participation in the Temple Cult on Festivals,” in The Madrid Qumran Congress: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Madrid, 18–21 March, 1991 (ed. Barrera Julio Trebolle and Montaner Luis Vegas; 2 vols.; STDJ 11; Leiden: Brill, 1992) 2:601–9.

56 Greenfield Noah and Fine Steven, “‘Remembered for Praise’: Some Ancient Sources on Benefaction in Herod's Temple,” Images 2 (2008): 166–71, esp. 167–68. For more on the inscriptional formula echoed in this mishnaic passage, “May X be remembered for good,” see Sorek Susan, Remembered for Good: A Jewish Benefaction System in Ancient Palestine (Sheffield: Sheffield, 2010) 7582.

57 Tanhuma, Pequdei 7; Exodus Rabbah, 51.6.

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